God never intended for our daily lives to overwhelm us. In a go, go, go world, sometimes we don’t realise how badly we need to stop and recalibrate.
Do you feel like you are overcome with a constant weariness, something that can’t be whisked away with a good night’s sleep? Are you struggling to complete tasks, make decisions or focus? Does it feel like you’re missing out on the joy and life satisfaction that you were born to experience?
We all have things that fill us and things that drain us. When we do too much of what wears us out compared with what energises us, we start to dig ourselves into a hole called burnout.
Burnout is commonly misunderstood as stress—in fact, it is often the product of mismanaged stress. Andrew and Dr Elizabeth Procter write, ‘Burnout comes when we overdo it for too long, and when our energy is used up faster than it is restored’. They use the illustration of a stress fracture, which is an injury where tiny cracks appear in a bone due to overuse; for example, a long-distance runner might develop a stress fracture in their foot. The same thing happens to our minds through burnout.
Our bodies are designed to adjust to situations. The transition into burnout is often slow because we readjust, readjust and readjust some more, until constant discomfort becomes the body’s new normal. At some stage, it can’t readjust again.
What does burnout look like?
Symptoms of burnout can include:
- physical/mental exhaustion after minimal effort
- muscle ache/pain
- feeling dizzy
- disrupted sleep
- feeling irritable
- being unable to relax, or unable to recover even after rest periods.
If these symptoms last longer than three months and cannot be explained by any other medical condition (e.g. anxiety or depression), there is a strong chance that burnout is to blame.
Look out for these changes in your behaviour over a prolonged period.
- Have you been working/studying for longer hours?
- Are you working through ‘free time’?
- Do you feel like you are not keeping up with your workload or taking longer to complete tasks?
- Do you feel less satisfaction or pride in what you do?
- Have you been late to arrive at or leave school/work?
- Do you feel less creative or less able to problem-solve?
- Are you frequently watching the clock?
- Are you relying on caffeine, fast food or treats to lift your energy/mood?
- Have you cut down your social life?
- Are you spending your ‘free time’ lazing around—rather than doing activities you find enriching—or constantly thinking about tasks?
Andrew and Elizabeth explain how there are two personality types that are typically lauded in professional settings, but particularly susceptible to burnout.
The first is somebody who is hard working, highly motivated and sometimes referred to as a Type-A Personality.
Because they need to feel valued by working hard and succeeding, they bury these worrying signs and struggle on as best they can. They are strong people and can do this for quite some time. Then comes the crash. A morning arrives when they can’t face work and they stay in bed, unable to get up. An incident happens when they completely lose it—bursting into tears or getting unacceptably angry.
In comparison, the second personality type is characterised by deep compassion and concern, willing to make sacrifices to their own emotional/mental/physical health to help others.
This leaves the carer, in a way, psychologically impregnated with the complex needs of the people they are caring for … it becomes hard for the carer to switch off from their role precisely because they are compassionate and want to take on problems. They can become lost in the sea of need that they confront.
There is no quick fix for burnout. It will take just as long to dig yourself out of that hole as it took to burrow yourself in. You cannot solve the problem with one holiday or rest period; it will require lasting changes to your patterns of behaviour and timetable.
One of the first steps to combat burnout is to change your attitudes and assumptions. Do you need to challenge your ‘shoulds’? For example, one which has been disproven for many people in 2020 is that they ‘should’ go in to work even when they are sick. This year’s hygiene rules have forced them to realise that, actually, getting a day of rest is better for both them and their colleagues.
Likewise, maybe you are someone who thinks you should fill your lunch break and other spare moments with work or tasks. Instead, activities like stepping outside for fresh air, reading, exercising, listening to music or meeting with friends can protect you from burning out.
God doesn’t expect us to tackle conditions like burnout alone. Reaching out to him through prayer and taking time to dwell in Scripture is a great strategy. Matthew 11:28–30 tells us, ‘Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light’.
God is also in community. Trapping your feelings inside can eat you alive, and some people are so overcome by burnout that they reach the awful conclusion of taking their own lives. Your loved ones want to support you—let them. They can keep you accountable as you pursue a rebalanced life through changes to your diet, getting out in nature, incorporating fun and creativity back into your days, exercising and whatever else you find is an effective way to recharge. In some cases, you may need to pursue professional help.
You will always have some draining parts of your day or weeks, which zap you more than others, but they should not be the norm. Prevention is always better than the cure, so make sure you are constantly reviewing whether, on average, your weeks are draining or filling you. That way, when you teeter on the edge of burnout, you can recognise the warning signs and know that it is time to refill the tank again.
Source: The Essential Guide to … BURNOUT: Overcoming Excess Stress, by Andrew and Dr Elizabeth Procter.